The ethics of selling bottled CA water

arrowhead-mountain-spring-water-24pkBottled water. It’s everywhere. And an interesting issue has arisen in California, where statewide water rationing has just been made mandatory because of a brutal four-year drought. Petitions are circulating demanding that Nestlé Waters stop bottling California water and selling it out of state.

Understandably defensive, Nestlé says it does nothing harmful in the watersheds where it operates. Reuters describes Nestlé’s operation:

The Swiss firm drew 50 million gallons from Sacramento sources last year, less than half a percent of the Sacramento Suburban Water District’s total production. It amounts to about 12 percent of residential water use, though, and is just shy of how much water flows from home faucets in the United States, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In other words, Nestlé may be bottling more than locals drink from the tap.

Nestlé owns Arrowhead Mountain Spring Water which has been bottling water from Millard Canyon, Calif., for a decade. The plant is located on the Morongo Band of Mission Indians reservation which, Nestlé claims, exempts it from California’s state water rationing.

Last year explained the impact of the operation:

The reservation is located in a Mojave Desert oasis at the base of the San Bernardino Mountains, 85 miles east of Los Angeles. Drawing water from that location, where just three inches of rain falls each year, prevents water from seeping downhill to fill aquifers of nearby towns struggling for water during the drought.

The Morongo did file a report with California that said 598 acre-feet of groundwater was pumped in Millard Canyon in 2013, and three acre-feet were diverted. “Those amounts translate to about 200 million gallons a year — enough water for about 400 typical homes in the Coachella Valley,”The Desert Sun reported.

It’s bad enough that scarce California water is being sold out of state, but even worse that Nestlé buys the water cheap and sells it elsewhere for a tidy profit. Not that it matters what they pay for it. The folks in California can’t drink dollar bills. They need the water.

I’ve been critical for years of the amount of bottled water that people seem compelled to buy and carry with them all the time. How and when did that come about? We used to go through life just fine without everyone packing a bottle of water (plastic bottles which in many cases probably don’t even get recycled). Why pay for bottled water when water flows from every tap in the country? If you must carry water, buy a reusable bottle and fill it with tap water. Are 21st Century people really so dehydrated? Is 21st Century tap water really so undrinkable?

Water rationing and the drought are going to be costly for everyone. Landscaping will die. Water recreation will be cut back. Golf courses will turn brown. Swimming pools will be drained.

And maybe, just maybe, sales of bottled California water will cease.

Full water levels are visible in the Bidwell Marina at Lake Oroville on July 20, 2011, in Oroville, California, followed by current drought levels on Aug. 19, 2014. Credit: California Department of Water Resources / Getty Images
Full water levels are visible in the Bidwell Marina at Lake Oroville on July 20, 2011, in Oroville, California, followed by current drought levels on Aug. 19, 2014. Credit: California Department of Water Resources / Getty Images

15 thoughts on “The ethics of selling bottled CA water

  1. I too am no fan of bottled water suppliers. Here in Texas Ozarka is famous for running roughshod over the rights of local people. But you need to did a little deeper in this case. For example, you note that Nestle’s water drain is only a half percent of Sacramento’s total usage. Later you state that it’s 12 percent of residential use. Which means that Nestle and residential put together equal (let’s see…divide by…carry the) about four percent of the total water used. And where does 96% go?. According to a show I saw on PBS recently, it goes to golf courses and big businesses. And the biggest businesses of all (in terms of water use) in CA is Big Ag, which gets a discount on the use of water because of their volume. Plus, according to the show, they, along with the golf courses, are first in line for the water, ie, as long as there is ANY water at all, they never have to cut back during a drought.

    So, yeah, let’s come down on Nestles for using that one-half of one percent of the water sold. But how about a little better regulation on Big Ag as well?

    1. I just thought it was interesting that concerned parties are petitioning against Nestle; I hadn’t seen something like that happen before when drought conditions prevail. Personally, I’d immediately shut down golf course watering and prohibit the filling of swimming pools. (In drought-prone areas, I’d prohibit their construction!) There’s nothing I hate more than seeing sprinklers running on a lush green golf course when the land all around it is drying up and blowing away. Or aerial photos of neighborhoods with pools in half the yards while the state is rationing water. But agriculture … we’ve got to eat. I can’t see denying water to agriculture. Huge amounts of the nation’s produce come from CA. And let’s not forget fracking. It uses a lot of water and poses a danger to the rest of it. (Actually, I don’t know if they frack in CA, but it’s a big issue here in CO.)

      1. Oh I agree with most of what you say, but it ignores a couple of points: (1) Big Ag’s water is relatively cheap (it is subsidized by the taxpayer, and (2) their contracts are worded such that if they ever try to SAVE water (ie, use less), their yearly allotment is permanently reduced to that level. That just invites waste.

        It produces roughly half of all the fruits, nuts, and vegetables consumed in the United States—and more than 90 percent of the almonds, tomatoes, strawberries, broccoli and other specialty crops—while exporting vast amounts to China and other overseas customers. ( )

      2. Opps, hit the wrong button! I meant to say that while we do need their products, a lot of the “thirstier” ones are specialty crops like almonds and pistachios whose prices would be higher if the growers had to pay a little more for the vast amounts of water they use. Personally, I could live with that.

      3. Okay, that’s a dumb law. Big Ag should use only as much water as it needs and no more. But if they then sacrifice to save a little water when everyone is also rationing, they shouldn’t be locked into that anymore than anyone else gets locked in when they ration. Guess we can thank their lobbyists for that.

  2. As California watches its dwindling water supply slipping away faster than they think it should,one would think that a broad based water conservation program would be well under way and would have been implemented several years ago. But no they are all about Management Crises just like the rest of most government bases entities,and we all know to well how that works and turns out…don’t we!

    1. When there’s money to be made, it’s damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead. We have similar problems in CO, and it’s been suggested that long-term, we need to limit suburban sprawl. Obviously that’s not going to happen. And where does a lot of our water go? Down the Colorado River to Arizona and California. Water is the lifeblood of the West, and riparian law is extremely complex. Where I live (just north of Denver), I can be fined if I collect and use rainwater that falls on my property because, by law, much of that water belongs to Kansas and Nebraska! It has to be allowed to drain and flow downstream to those states. It’s so dry here that I doubt much, if any, rainwater ever gets off my property to flow downstream, but that’s the law nonetheless. The rain on my roof doesn’t belong to me; it belongs to Nebraska.

  3. The crazy world of California water rights is way to complex to go into here as far as Big Ag is concerned. Or any other type of water rights.

    Not all Ag is top priority, it depends on what rights they hold.

    However, farmers are getting 0 of the federal allotments for water this year.

    This, in the nations agricultural heartland. Some farmers/growers are taking out orchards, not for development, but for lack of water.

    In later years, the land can be put back into use with different crops, but we’ve lost mature orchards.

    However as far as bottled water, yes it’s necessary. Many areas of CA have zero groundwater, and the water that comes out of the taps is undrinkable.

    My ex-wife lives in Porterville (San Joaquin Valley, halfway between Fresno and Bakersfield roughly) , and they have to buy bottled water to cook with.

    Governor Brown has issued orders recently.

    Meters are required residentially, with full installation to be completed by 2025.

    1. If the bottled water is being sold in Calif. because of the drought, it makes sense. I was railing about bottling the now-scarce supplies in Calif. and selling them out of state. Gov. Brown should make that illegal.

      Sorry your comment got held for moderation. It will happen whenever there are links in a comment. Just a precaution.

      1. I know that this is a discussion from awhile ago, but I cannot resist the opportunity to comment that while our legislators involve themselves in ridiculous activities, Nestle is keeping an eye on the ball, the ball being water. They are buying rights to water all over the world, including in our state and national parks. Why aren’t our elected representatives stopping this?!? One day, when the reality of not enough water hits, we will regret being so blasé now when we could do something about it. Also, as for buying water, I live in an area where the lead content is off the charts. I do buy water, but I buy distilled. That should mean that they are taking tap water and removing the contaminants. My sister has purchased a distiller (cost about $150 I think) that sits on her kitchen counter and purifies the tap water she runs through it.

      2. I’ve never lived in a place where the tap water is not safe to drink. I thought providing potable water was the job of the water companies. The water might not taste very good, but it was at least safe to drink.

... and that's my two cents